Britain’s Secret Theft of Ethiopia’s Most Wondrous Manuscripts

In the basement of London’s British Library I was led into a small well-lit room, marking the end of a journey that began in the Ethiopian Highlands at the Addis Ababa home of a remarkable British historian.

In that home, over strong Ethiopian coffee and English biscuits, Richard Pankhurst, who dedicated his life to documenting Ethiopian history, told me the story of the ancient manuscripts looted at the end of the Battle of Maqdala. In 1868, a British expeditionary force laid siege to the mountain fortress of Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros in what was then Abyssinia. A two-day auction of the spoils of war among the victorious troops resulted in more than a thousand predominantly religious manuscripts making their way to Britain—15 elephants and hundreds of mules carried them along with other cultural treasures to the coast—with 350 manuscripts ending up in the British Library. Pankhurst campaigned for the return of the manuscripts to Ethiopia but hadn’t succeeded before his death in 2017. Now other voices are continuing the cause.


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